Patriots without piety – Citizenship without chauvinism

Indo-Pak border at Wagah

“…So help me God.”, concludes the oath of office of the President of the United States. “I…do swear in the name of God…”, begins one text of the Oath of Office for every Constitutional office-bearer in the Republic of India (where, fortunately, there is an alternative text of solemn affirmation ). Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabilillah (Faith, Piety and Fight in the path of God) is not the motto of some outlawed jihadist outfit, but of the Pakistani Army. The official war cries of the Indian Army hark back to Puranic deities. The successful conclusion of an important American counter-terrorism operation was relayed with the words: “For God and country…Geronimo!Geronimo!Geronimo!” Raised amid these menacing and triumphant war cries, it is unsurprising that many people who consider themselves patriots imagine that the presence of God or at least belief in God is necessary for the defence of, and the very sense of, nationhood.

Be it in ‘one nation under God‘ or a nation watched over by a ‘dispenser of destiny‘, the symbolism and trappings patriotism are so suffused with religious connotations and imagery that in the popular imagination, some sort of piety is considered a pre-requisite for citizenship. To the religiously minded, such piety is a pre-requisite not just for a sense of belonging to a nation, but for global citizenship too! This view is articulated in Count Leo Tolstoy’s narrative, of three stages in the advancement of human civilization:

These three views of life are as follows: First, embracing the individual, or the animal view of life; second, embracing the society, or the pagan view of life; third, embracing the whole world, or the divine view of life….In the first theory of life a man’s life is limited to his one individuality; the aim of life is the satisfaction of the will of this individuality. In the second theory of life a man’s life is limited not to his own individuality, but to certain societies and classes of individuals: to the tribe, the family, the clan, the nation; the aim of life is limited to the satisfaction of the will of those associations of individuals. In the third theory of life a man’s life is limited not to societies and classes of individuals, but extends to the principle and source of life–to God…The whole historic existence of mankind is nothing else than the gradual transition from the personal, animal conception of life to the social conception of life, and from the social conception of life to the divine conception of life.

Tolstoy by Repin

A mind like Tolstoy’s that was instrumental in re-imagining the nature of the individual and the State and contributing to the foundations of Non-violent Resistance, too, alas, seems to have been unable to imagine a widening empathic embrace based on simple human solidarity instead of an imagined divine mandate. To make a case for how someone can be a good citizen without God, or good without God at all, is the unenviable task of having to paint a picture that is at variance with the vision of luminaries adorned by a halo of infallibility, and speak up against the din of war cries which have become sacred chants.

Tolstoy, to his credit, displays a breadth of imagination which transcends petty tribalistic and nationalistic considerations, but democracies today aren’t free of demagogues whose conception of a world state is not a plural comity of nations but a world of vassal states acknowledging the supremacy of their de facto, or sometimes de jure theocracy. Here are a few vignettes of the world order imagined by quasi-religious demagogues and cameos of what their conception of a global citizen should be:

  1. The late Sheikh Ahmed Deedat, the famed Muslim apologist of whom Dr. Zakir Naik is an aspirant ersatz version, claims that Islam produces the finest type of citizen:

    “…You count them on a man to man basis, the Muslim and the Christian, the Muslim and the Hindu, the Muslim and anybody else…in brotherhood, in piety, in charity, in sobriety. There is no other community that can show a candle to us, that we are better than you!…We have in my country, I have boasted and nobody has contradicted, as the Muslims of South Africa, the lowest alcoholic consumption, the lowest gambling rate, the lowest suicide rate, the lowest prison rate, the lowest divorce rate and we have the highest charity rate in the country! Jesus says, ‘By the fruits ye shall know them!’ Judge them by the fruits, not by individuals: ‘This ruler had something wrong….That guy had done something wrong’. I say why don’t you look at your own man? Hitler! Who was he? Christian! Mussolini! Who was he? Christian!”

    This isn’t something Sheikh Deedat said once, but something that was his constant refrain.

  2. Tarun Vijay, former editor of Panchajanya, the magazine of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, proclaims that what our planet needs is a Hindu ethos:

    “A Hindu-majority India remains the only guarantee of a pluralistic and democratic nation. The moment we accept the de-Hinduisation process of the nation as a sign of secularism and an acceptable factor in polity, we are not only doomed as an Indian nation but also invite Talibanisation of the society … We are those Hindu people who gave the world the concept of ‘world is one family’ (vasudhaiva kutumbakam) when the semitic races were launching Crusades and Jihads … To be a Hindu means saying no to Gulags and accepting a Galileo with appreciation. Even today the best of the economic developmental models in the states are indisputably seen in states where BJP is ruling. Still seculars deny that showing a pathological hatred for the Hindu word and world view.”

  3. Dinesh D’Souza, a Christian apologist and conservative commentator in the US, makes an even more grandiose claim:

    “… We all think that we know what a secular society looks like. We have in a sense one foot in secular society. Europe is, we think, a secular society. But no! Our society, and certainly Western civilization, remains imbued and in some ways drenched, with Christian assumptions. Even people who think they are acting in secular ways are often reflecting those assumptions…You had strong anti-slavery or abolitionist movements largely motivated by Christianity. The Quakers, the Evangelical Christians basically said that if we are created equal in the eyes of God (a theological point) then no man has the right to rule over another man without his consent. This idea became the basis not only of anti-slavery or abolition. It also became the basis of democracy…Or look at the idea of compassion. Aristotle makes a list of the virtues; compassion does not appear on that list. In some senses, Aristotle thought it more as a vice. Compassion is a value that came into the world because of Christianity!”

The Golden Rule

In reality, all the three gentlemen, incidentally all of Indian origin, quoted above are saying only thing; that without their religion, the world will lapse into primitive barbarism and savagery and that civilization’s only hope is a mass conversion to their worldview.

To those swooning over Sheikh Deedat’s boast about Islam producing the finest fruit of civilization, here is a point to ponder, not related to individuals but about the sort of society a religion creates: Why do the worst places in the world to be a woman so often happen to be theocracies of a certain persuasion?

To those nodding vigorously in agreement with Tarun Vijay, here is an exercise. Read aloud Tarun Vijay’s paean to Hindutva quoted above, while looking in the eye this image of Qutubuddin Naseeruddin Ansari.

Neither Deedat’s nor Vijay’s conception of ideal citizenship were sufficient for either of their co-religionists in India to recognize Papalal and Jayshree as one of their own, as Indians to be proud of. Far from motivating Indians towards model citizenship as these demagogues boast, all that the daawa and Hindutva strains of demagoguery have done is vitiate the general discourse, an anguished comment on which can be found on the pages of this blog:

Hindus obsessing over what a true Hindu should be seem to suggest that adopting an orphan born in a different faith is un-Hindu. How about speaking out against this? Muslims obsessing over how Muslim a four-year old (FOUR YEAR OLD!) should be seem to suggest that an adoption on humanitarian grounds regardless of faith is somehow unislamic. How about speaking out against this? While we could well have been speaking out against any of this, here we are….

Atheists obsessing over how vocally atheistic one should be and what particular brand of delusion one must appear to criticize to be certified a genuine atheist! Wouldn’t it be great if the certificate-demanders here were equally voluble fairness-demanders in the public square?

And coming to those smugly agreeing with Dinesh D’Souza here’s some news. Some manifestations of compassions may indeed have been occasioned by Christianity at different times, but so are some obvious contemporary manifestations of evil like traumatic exploitation of minors and spread of lethal falsehoods about contraception.

However, D’Souza himself does freethinkers the favour by himself making it easier to rebut him. When pressed by Peter Singer on the point of compassion, D’Souza responds:

“If there is a famine tomorrow in Rwanda, you will notice something very interesting. The Western nations will rush to help, send volunteers, the Churches will send food, Doctors Without Borders…There will be people writing cheques. You will notice that in the other cultures of the world, there is a relative indifference, including cultures that have been influenced by Buddhism.”

He forgets that Doctors Without Borders is a resolutely secular organization with origins in a staunchly secular state. The very name Doctors Without Borders is also a reminder that while we treat piety as the virtue of a bygone era, patriotism itself, devoted to borders, is not particularly an obvious virtue of a future era.

Baba Amte

If it is indeed tireless service to humanity that ought to be the yardstick of good global citizenship, then Indian freethinkers have no reason be impressed by the mythical caricatures of ideal citizenship propped up by the demagogues quoted above, since we have real-life examples of our own to look up to, Baba Amte, to name just one. To many of our compatriots “Indian Atheist” is a veritable oxymoron, since even to many who consider themselves liberal, to be ‘Indian’ means also to belong to some spiritual tradition, any spiritual tradition. During the heady early days of the Indian freedom movement, the obvious interpretation of the tricolour flag was a saffron and green acknowledging the Hindus and Muslims, interspersed with a white band of neutrality and accommodation. The founders of the Republic of India, after Independence, in their wisdom chose to not let this obvious religious symbolism be the defining one, and instead chose the secular interpretation of saffron denoting courage and sacrifice, white denoting peace and purity and green denoting abundance and prosperity. From just one account of the life of Baba Amte, from this Economist obituary, we can see how an atheist can be most gloriously Indian and be a living demonstration of all the ideals of nationhood embodied in the flag.


Courage and sacrifice: Mr Amte, a handsome man in his 30s, was better known as a big-shot criminal lawyer in Warora, in what is now Maharashtra in central India. He could charge as much as 50 rupees for arguing for 15 minutes. He was a member of the bridge club and the tennis club and vice-president of the Warora municipality, and he kept, outside town, an elegant farmhouse set in lush fields which he had never lifted a finger to cultivate himself….

When the scavengers came to him with grievances one week, he decided to try their work, scraping out latrines for nine hours a day. His family, landowner Brahmins who had given him a costly education and a sports car, were scandalised; and the more so when, in 1946, he married a Brahmin girl, Sadhna, who thought nothing of leaving her own sister’s wedding to help a servant-woman do the washing.

Peace and purity: On the outlying fields of his ashrams he held camps where the young were inspired to be social activists; he led them, lying in a van, on rallies for peace and social unity throughout India; and he never ceased to beat the drum of self-sufficiency, for he had proved that even lepers could achieve it.

Abundance and prosperity: His own ashram, founded in 1951 on barren, rocky land full of snakes, was specifically for the handicapped and for lepers, who built and tilled it from scratch with half a dozen tools and their stumps of hands. It was called Anandwan, “grove of joy”; its philosophy was that lepers could be rehabilitated not by charity, nor by the begging life in railway stations and on streets, but by hard work and creativity, which would bring self-respect. Not by tears, but by sweat, Mr Amte wrote once, and noted how similar those were. By his death around 3,000 people lived at Anandwan. The farm grew millet, grains and fruit; in the schools, lepers taught the blind, deaf and dumb; there were colleges, two hospitals, workshops and an orchestra, where popular songs were conducted by a polio victim. Warora townsfolk, who had shunned the ashram in its early years, had learnt to buy its vegetables and drink its milk without fear of contagion

Without God, all this was possible for Baba Amte. For patriots without piety, it is a possibility that affirms…and beckons.